Expedition Epilogue: Indelible ancient reality at the Heart of Africa

At the conclusion of his 290-mile transect on foot through the Central African Republic, National Geographic Explorer J. Michael Fay shares his big-picture observation of what he’s seen, heard and understood: The regression from colonial occupation and post-colonial nation states is making way for the ancient fault lines in the region’s geography and population dynamics. If the world at large hopes to salvage nation states in this region of Africa, the solution lies in knowing the history, the land, the people and a state presence that applies land-use management as its primary tool.  It can be done; law and order can exist. Programs like the Chinko Project that work at that fundamental level, helping to manage the wildlife, vegetation, soil, water, creating organization, employment, law and order, are absolutely necessary.  

By J. Michael Fay

On the truck back to base I was listening to one of the guards, a Muslim, recounting the “news” to Yaya, also a Muslim, who is three-quarters Rounga and one-quarter Bornu from Chad, born in N’dele.

I could catch only part of the story over the hum of the engine and the dodging of branches, but it would seem that the Goula Rounga (or FPRC–Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de Centrafrique), had a big battle with the Fulani (or UPC–Mouvement pour l’Unité et la Paix en Centrafrique) in Nzako, a diamond town north of Bakouma, the closest town to the east of the Chinko Project area.

He was talking of Fulani people who fled the fighting in Nzako, the diamond town I passed through in 2015, who had arrived on the western border of the project area on the Mbari River.  He said there were tons of people who showed up with almost nothing on the river.  A baby was born en route. It was women, children and old men.

Then somehow, the third faction of Ndzakara Anti-Balaka in Bakouma had attacked Muslims there, kind of in a frenzy, and then things had degraded to atrocities and cannibalism.

When we got back to base the stories were confirmed. More than 200 Mbororo refugees are on the Mbari River and things are far from settled in Bakouma.

If you read William Stamps Cherry‘s unpublished autobiography, and  if you read Dennis Cordell’s 1985 book “Dar Al-Kuti and the Last Years of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade”, it is clear that things are coming right back to what Cherry witnessed and documented just before the turn of the 20th Century.  The principally Goula-Rounga Muslim population of the north wants to reestablish what it had in Cherry’s time in the north of the country, before the French colonial administration took it away from them: a city state called Dar Al-Kuti that dominated the region, carrying out raids, then for slaves and ivory, and now for land, diamonds, gold and other resources.

In N’dele, its capital, there was law and order, prosperity, and a sophistication unknown today. They traded with the north, the Bornu, the Hausa, the Zaghawa, and Arabs in shifting alliances stretching half way across the Sahara all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.

The Fulani have pushed far south with their cattle since Cherry’s time, aided by modern trypanosome medicine. These herders have come to dominate the bush over much of the country, many of who today were born in the Central African Republic.  The southern people, Banda and related tribes, the Ndakara and others who bore the brunt of the razzia up until after the turn of the 20th Century, are fighting back, especially against the Goula Rounga, who want to reestablish Dar Al Kuti.

Then there are those we encountered on our walk, the Arabs and Fulani and Fur from the northeast, many of them still with ties to Khartoum, who may lay claim to areas east as they have also done in the past.

Dar Fur and the Khartoumers have not really become official players in the current conflict on this side of the border, but the same battle has been raging for decades on the Sudan side.  However, given the numbers of them coming south and the resources that they are taking from the Central African Republic and adjacent South Sudan and trading to the north, it would not be surprising if they too try to regain past domination over this territory to the south.

All of this history, the land, the resources, the names of rivers and mountains, are known by these various peoples. Who then “owns” these lands? The entire colonial era, whether British or French, in this area is slipping away; a mere blip on the radar of history.

If the world at large hopes to salvage nation states in this region of Africa, the solution lies in knowing the history, the land, the people and a state presence that applies land-use management as its primary tool.  It can be done; law and order can exist. Programs like the Chinko Project that work at that fundamental level, helping to manage the wildlife, vegetation, soil, water, creating organization, employment, law and order, are absolutely necessary.   If not, in my opinion as a simple wanderer, aid organizations and foreign military forces are going to continue to scratch their heads for a solution.

Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he can the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s most remote and inaccessible wildernesses (among them the National Geographic-sponsored Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent. You can read all his dispatches at Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.

Changing Planet

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Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.